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Higher education costs too much, and the often predatory structure of student loans can extend and compound those costs in painful and seemingly endless ways. Neither of those unfortunate truths will disappear with President Joe Biden’s move to forgive a portion of student loan debt for millions of borrowers.

Through executive action, Biden is forgiving up to $10,000 for Americans making less than $125,000 and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients, who typically have qualified for those grants because of a demonstrated financial need for education.

We have a couple thoughts about this plan, and the reaction it has generated.

Let’s start with that reaction first. Many critics of Biden’s move have framed their argument around fairness. It goes something like this: Other people already paid their loans back, or didn’t pursue higher education, so it is unfair for them (and all taxpayers) to cover the costs of this loan forgiveness. This is a position that, frankly, continues to baffle us.

The notion that “I suffered, so someone else must suffer too” is both devoid of empathy and detached from how the allocation of collective resources through government works. As a country, through our elected representatives and government officials, we identify needs and direct resources to those needs. Sometimes our tax dollars support services for others, and sometimes others’ tax dollars support us.

As others have already pointed to, is it unfair that people in states like Colorado help pay for disaster relief when a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast? We certainly don’t think so. If you ask us, this is part of the social contract we’re all party to as Americans.

Now, there should always be vigorous debate about how to allocate our collective resources, and whether something is a worthy and necessary investment. But if we’re going to apply a standard of fairness, we might need to bring a host of other public expenditures into the mix. Is it fair that massive oil and gas companies get billions of dollars in subsidies from taxpayers while those same taxpayers have been paying record prices? Is it fair that some of the largest companies don’t pay any federal corporate income tax?

During a White House press briefing on Wednesday, Biden administration official Bharat Ramamurti, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, made a fairness-based comparison to the 2017 Republican tax cuts, pointing out that the majority of those cuts went to high-income Americans while most of the benefits of the student loan relief will go to those with more modest incomes.

These comments are helpful, not just because of the context about fairness, but also because it leads us to our next point.

It was very interesting to hear Ramamurti use the word “bill” in his discussion about this week’s announcement, given that Biden’s loan forgiveness action did not go through the legislative process. This was a unilateral executive action — a multi-billion dollar spending decision made without Congress. This may seem like a minute process detail to some, but to us it is a big question: Does Biden even have the authority to make such a move?

Well, if you had asked Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a year ago, the answer would have been no.

But now, the White House is hanging its legal authority to forgive this debt on a 2003 law that allows for debt relief in certain situations, like a national emergency. Both the Biden and Trump administrations have used authority under this law as the basis for repeatedly pausing student loan repayments during the pandemic. This newest use from Biden and his team, however, is more expansive and comes at the same time that they are arguing that the economy is strong and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed COVID-19 guidance.

The pain felt by student loan borrowers, and the need for structural changes to bring the immediate and long-term costs of higher education down, are all very real. We don’t discount the positive impact that Biden’s action will have for many individuals in Maine and around the country — just look at the people BDN reporter Sawyer Loftus interviewed this week.

However, we can’t help but believe this is a policy and spending decision that should have congressional involvement and approval, which could have led to a plan that better targeted relief and addressed the ongoing problem of student loan interest rates.

—The Bangor Daily News

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